President George W. Bush officially put his $1.6 trillion tax cut package in the eager hands of House Republicans on Thursday, and thus opened what he hopes will be a very short negotiation over its size and scope. "I urge the Congress to pass my tax relief plan with the swiftness these uncertain times demand," Bush said in his first Rose Garden ceremony, after making extra clear Wednesday that he wasn't taking helpful suggestions.
"I think for those who want to diminish the size of the tax cut, that would be inadvisable," he said. "And for those who want to increase the size of the tax cut, it would be inadvisable. It's the right size."
But in Congress, everything is up for negotiation. And so the Democrats wasted no time with their counteroffer something in the $750 billion to $900 billion range, and weighted more heavily toward the lower-income types. They see Bush's estate-tax reduction, which overwhelmingly benefits the rich, as the fattest target.
No Lexus for you!
Photo-op time. Before the plan had even arrived, Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle were camped out behind a podium bearing a placard that said "Bush Tax Plan: New Lexus for Every Millionaire." And behind the podium was a Lexus. And there was Gephardt doing political standup, insisting that under the President's plan, lower-income families would only be able to afford "the muffler."
Trent Lott and Denny Hastert's placard, meanwhile, said "Tax Relief for Everyone," and the pair leaned heavily on Bush's "the average working family gets $1,600" pitch. The plan, of course, has something for every conservative Republican across-the-board cuts for the tax-code ideologues, marriage-penalty reductions and per-child and charitable expansions for the social conservatives and Hastert and Lott seem quite content to pass the thing as is.
The Democrats, of course, don't have a p.r. master like Bill Clinton to kick the GOP around anymore and you can see it in their faces. But they've still got a tight House, a split Senate, and a general feeling that Bush doesn't quite have Americans sold on this one.
Testing the waters
And so Gephardt and Daschle, dealing from a position of numerical weakness with no veto to back them up, are going to try to turn the b-word back on the guy who ran on it. "We are here to offer a hand of bipartisanship on taxes," Daschle said. "We can do it, not his way, but our way together."
But Bush, who spared no sweet-talk overture to reluctant Democrats over the past week, seems intent on using the tax cut to see how much he can do with the Republican votes he's got. And Democrats figure this is their chance to make bipartisanship a very uncomfortable reality for the new president.
For the first time in years, the p.r. war looks even.
And the Republicans have the votes.